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Nutrivore Diet for Better Health + Faster Weight Loss: Scientist’s Plan Works Without Deprivation

Simple tricks outsmart the nutrient deficiencies that make it hard to slim.

We all know the frustrating feeling of being locked out of a car. Without the right key, we’re stuck. Similarly, a parking lot’s worth of nutrition research these days shows many of us are trying to lose weight and feel our best without the necessary keys: essential micronutrients. People love to talk about macronutrients — the big guys of protein, fat and carbs — but medical biophysicist turned science communicator Sarah Ballantyne, PhD, says, “It’s the small things these big things are made of that really matter.” Whether you’re an herbivore, carnivore or omnivore, she wants you to be a “nutrivore” — someone who gets all the nutrients their body needs from the foods they eat. Read on for everything you need to know about a nutrivore diet.

What are micronutrients?

There are around 49 micronutrients including things like magnesium, iron and selenium that we need for health but the body can’t make. That means we must get them from outside sources (read: food!). These small but mighty keys unlock countless biological functions in the body. And boosting levels of micronutrients can make a world of difference when it comes to our health and metabolism. Take vitamin D, for instance: Italian research finds that getting adequate amounts can quadruple the speed at which a healthy diet will slim us down.

Micronutrient deficiencies are all-too common

“Almost everyone’s diet is falling short of the mark in terms of meeting their nutritional needs — and not just a small differential that can be easily made up with a multivitamin,” says Ballantyne, author of the new book Nutrivore. And deficiencies are getting worse every year, due to our ultra-processed food supply that can leave us nutritionally bankrupt.

The New York Times bestselling author adds, “Sure, there’s a statistical possibility that you’re the magic rainbow unicorn with the perfect nutrient-dense diet. But I’m going to hedge my bets based on a wealth of scientific studies that demonstrate that even people who are incredibly intentional about every bite still end up falling short of essential nutrients.”

How bad are our nutrient deficiencies?

When it comes to Americans eating nutritious diets, the picture is a gloomy one. “For at least 10 essential nutrients, more than half of the US population is falling short of dietary requirements. And for at least four essential nutrients, more than 90% of us aren’t getting enough from the food we eat,” says Ballantyne. Here are some more startling stats: Research shows that 100% of us are lacking sufficient vitamin D, 98% are lacking potassium, 96% are lacking vitamin E and 90% are lacking B-9.

Related: This Sneaky Vitamin Deficiency May Be The Cause of Your Thinning Hair

The link between low nutrients and cravings

No surprise these nutrient deficiencies are linked to poor metabolic health. Weight-loss expert Fred Pescatore, MD, explains, “When we don’t get enough nutrients, our body sends signals to the brain to eat. When we eat anti-nutritious foods, the body craves more. And as we age, we lose enzymes that help break down food as well, hence hunger.”

Cravings, however, aren’t the only symptoms of these deficiencies. Issues facing women over 40 — lack of sleep, brain fog, bone and muscle loss — can be intensified by low nutrients. Ballantyne says, “Dietary shortfalls of at least a dozen nutrients are linked to worse menopause symptoms like hot flashes and insomnia.”

What is the nutrivore diet?

Considering the serious state of nutrient deficiencies in this country, Ballantyne created a new, healthy eating philosophy that solves deficiencies to end cravings and weight gain. Whether you prioritize plants, meat or a mix of both, she wants you to focus on being a nutrient-dense “nutrivore” eater. Best of all: You don’t have to give up any foods. “Nutrivore is a diet modifier,” says Ballantyne. “You can increase the nutrient density of your current diet by overlaying a nutrivore emphasis on top of the core dietary structure.”

This new approach flips the script on traditional diets. It’s about “nourishment, not judgment,” says Ballantyne. “I like to think of this as getting healthy to lose weight, rather than losing weight to get healthy.”

“The nutrivore philosophy is more about getting off the diet roller coaster and finally adopting healthy lifelong eating patterns,” adds Ballantyne. She knows all about that wild ride. Ballantyne lost 150 pounds from 2008 to 2012, but it didn’t make her healthier. And she found, “The thing that all diets are missing, and what I was missing, was the nutrient density piece.”

That realization inspired Ballantyne’s latest work. “My biggest personal benefit from adopting a nutrivore lifestyle is that I’ve been able to finally ditch my food fears and find a sustainable way to eat every day that no longer feels like I am white-knuckling my diet in order to maintain my weight loss.”

Who benefits from a nutrivore diet

While the nutrivore approach isn’t designed strictly for weight loss, Ballantyne says, “Addressing nutrient deficiencies can make a huge difference when your intention is healthy weight loss.” That’s because nutrient-rich foods are more satisfying with fewer calories. Dr. Pescatore contends, “You could quickly lose 2 to 5 pounds just by correcting nutritional deficiencies.” (Click to learn more about the Volumetrics Diet.)

Proof that the nutrivore diet transforms the body

Boosting nutrients this way helps the whole body. A 2017 meta-analysis found that people eating 28 oz. of nutrient-rich fruit and vegetables daily slashed their chances of dying by any cause by 31%, compared to those eating fewer nutrients.

More real-life proof: Nutritional therapy practitioner Jennifer Warden, NTP, says, “Consuming the most nutrient-dense choices has made a noticeable difference for me: more energy and better sleep. Nutrivore is truly groundbreaking!”

And Mary Norling, 68, likes how the approach removes shame from eating. She says, “Nothing seems to be out of bounds. You can just add healthy things in. Given a choice of a slice of pepperoni pizza, with or without mushrooms, I will now choose the one with mushrooms because they will add nutritive value.”

Sara Combs, 69, lost 7 pounds in four weeks using nutrivore. It also alleviated her food stress. She says, “I can have dessert without feeling guilty. Why? Because the dessert doesn’t take away all of the great nutrients I’m putting into my body.”

How to eat like a nutrivore

The aim of a nutrivore lifestyle is to intentionally choose meals that fulfill or surpass your daily nutrient needs. And it’s easy to do by swapping low-nutrient foods for higher ones. To start, follow this meal map: Fill your plate with 1/4 starches (like whole grains), 1/4 protein and 1/2 fruit and veggies. Dress with healthy fats like olive oil and drink water.

What is a nutrivore food score?

Ballantyne even assigned common foods with a scientific “nutrivore score,” a measurement of the total amount of nutrients per calorie in a food. (Check her online database of 8,000 foods.)

The highest food groups include cruciferous, root or leafy veggies; onions and mushrooms; citrus and berries; legumes; nuts and seeds; and seafood. But there are lots of surprises: Strawberries are twice as nutrient-dense as blueberries, cantaloupe has double the nutrients of honeydew, and carrots are denser than artichokes, per calorie. Canned clam liquid has the top score of 14,744! Ballantyne admits, “I’ve certainly added meals that incorporate clam juice, like clam chowder and linguine with clam sauce.”

Related: How to Grill Fish and Other Types of Seafood So It’s Perfectly Flaky and Tender

There’s no target number you have to reach. Simply try to boost your total daily nutrients. As a guideline, nutrient-rich superfoods score over 800, high-nutrient foods score over 400 and medium-nutrient foods between 150 and 400. Ballantyne adds, “Any food with a score over 150 contributes more nutrients than calories to the diet.”

How to turn regular meals into nutrivore winners

Use these easy tips to get the most out of your new nutrient-dense lifestyle…

1. Add spices to meals

Mixing multiple herbs into recipes is an easy way to boost your nutrient intake. Try garlic (nutrivore score: 5,622), parsley (5,491), cilantro (2,609) or cinnamon (1,146).

2. Don’t stress about organic

Ballantyne says, “It matters much more what type of foods you’re choosing than the quality. Eating more fruit and vegetables reduces our risk of just about every health problem, no matter whether they’re fresh, frozen, canned, organic, conventional, locally grown, in-season or heirloom varieties.” 

3. Save money with frozen options

If you don’t have access to fresh fruits and veggies, feel free to stock up on frozen or low-sodium jarred and canned options. Dr. Ballantyne says, “You may have heard that freezing foods for a long period destroys important vitamins and minerals, but actually the opposite is true!” For example, she points out: Raw fresh broccoli has a nutrivore score of 2,833, while frozen broccoli — harvested at its peak freshness — has a score of 2,925.

4. Choose foods over supplements

If the choice is between foods or pills, choose food. Ballantyne says, “Studies show that multivitamins have little if any impact on our long-term health, whereas getting more nutrients from foods provides a clear benefit.” But there are exceptions. Supplementing with 2,000 to 5,000 IU daily of vitamin D can help shore up levels of this wellness nutrient. (Learn how vitamin D can help the thyroid.)

Top nutrient-rich foods to pick up at the store

Shop for these items, which rank high in ‘nutrivore scores’ — a measurement of the amount of nutrients they contain per calorie.

  • Watercress (6,929)
  • Coffee (7,036)
  • Tea (5,080)
  • Radishes (5,863)
  • Shiitake mushrooms (4,343)
  • Chard (6,573)
  • Spinach (4,548)
  • Strawberries (762)

Nutrivore before and after: Katie Fallecker

Before and after photos of Katie Fallecker, who lost 153 lbs on a nutrivore diet
Katie Fallecker

For two long years, Katie Fallecker slept upright in a chair, finding it too painful to lie flat in bed. Her doctors couldn’t solve her rheumatoid arthritis pain or a laundry list of other health issues. She admits, “I’d gone through the range of emotions and resigned myself to thinking, This is just the way it is. I’ll never feel better.”

Then Katie turned to the MyFitnessPal app to start tracking her food choices. “I felt so bad I just needed to get a handle on what food I was eating.” By becoming more mindful of her eating choices, she weeded out empty calories. She enjoyed “burgers in a bowl,” replacing buns with extra veggies.

She reached for higher-nutrient foods

“My goal was to make the best food decision at that moment. There was no pressure. It was a customizable approach I could grow into.” Eating healthy foods one day impacted how Katie felt the next. She even shed 10 unwanted pounds a month!

Now, two years later, Katie no longer needs a wheelchair or cane. She can comfortably cross her legs, wear her wedding ring and enjoy time with her children. (Inspired, her husband lost 30 pounds too.) “Focusing on the nutrients in my diet has improved how I feel and expanded my world of food, which, for a picky eater, is an exciting thing!” says Katie. “I feel better on the inside.” She adds, “This means that I get to live the rest of my life and actually be a part of it!” Learn more about MyFitnessPal.

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